The trickiest thing, in writing about Henry VIII, is keeping it interesting. (Writing him, not being him!) His story is so twisted and monumental and rife with sex and faith and empire building that nearly everyone knows at least something about it. The salacious and violent bits, if nothing else. Beheadings, betrayals, birthrights. So it must be very difficult to write a long novel in which we all know where the narrative will go. Enter Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the story of Thomas Cromwell, a lesser known figure in the generally understood saga of Henry VIII. But Cromwell is one of my favorite types of characters… “the man in the room.” While, obviously, this is not Cromwell’s autobiography, he makes for a fantastic vehicle through which to tell the tales of the Tudor court. By focusing on Cromwell’s efforts and conflicts, author Mantel frees herself from having to give us a “Henry VIII tale.” We begin to worry less about whether or not Anne Boleyn will marry Henry, and marvel more at how it comes to pass.
Wolf Hall is a look into the parlor games and intrigues of history. It is witty and pithy and, at times, just a teeny bit up it’s own ass. I must admit that, in rare instances the clever turn of phrase became a little dull with overuse. In some moments the pathos of a situation were undercut by the author’s compulsion to crank out a zippy, if artistic, one liner. Again, that is just fine by The Worm. Reading Wolf Hall had much the same effect that reading Oscar Wilde has for me. It is so loaded with clever turns and phrasing that it encourages a slow read. It can also be overwhelmingly smartassed in spots. That said, when used on this subject matter and given the style and fashion of Henry’s day, I’m totally okay with Mantel’s choice to incorporate this tone into her narrative.
While on the subject of the narrative style, now would be a good time to warn (or tantalize) prospective readers. Mantel employs a style in her prose that is either brilliant or just bizarre. I started Wolf Hall feeling the author’s choice to play with the structure of dialogue as being disjointed and unnecessarily gimmicky. Points of view and pronouns became confusing. The choice to use italicized dialogue at times, and traditional quotes at others was disharmonious and disruptive. In certain passages, dialogue flows directly into third person prose, which also left me on edge. But at a certain point, maybe about a third of the way through the novel, I was able to let go of my unease and simply let the words and atmosphere flow from the work in a stream of consciousness sort of way. Once I started to experience, rather than read Wolf Hall, I came to see it’s beauty and depth.
Much of the prose in Wolf Hall reads like stage direction in a lavish production. Almost as if it were originally intended for the stage, with heavy velvets and hushed but hurried converstaions. You can hear the stomp of boots and the brushing of cloaks as actors move across a dimly lit stage. Wolf Hall is where the verbal jousting of Dangerous Liasaons meets the haunting self-doubt of Shakespear’s Hamlet. In fact, when all was read and done I felt exactly how I felt after first seeing Kenneth Braunagh’s film adaptation of Henry V. A little smug; a little smarter; a little more cultured. And yet it was still just whole lot of fun. This novel is an experience and some passages do deserve a second reading. You will get a lot out of Wolf Hall, but you are gonna’ work.
This novel is chock-a-block with sidelong glances, verbal one-upmanship, double entendres and leveraging for advantage. It is everything you expect and want from the Tudor court. The book focuses on the period of Henry’s reign between Queen Katherine and Anne Boylen. By limiting the scope of the novel to this period, and using Cromwell as the protagonist, Mantel is able to bring to the fore some of the aspects of history that may have been overlooked against the backdrop of beheadings and incestuous marriages. Thomas Cromwell is the upstart fixer in King Henry’s court. He is the lowborn man with the right connections… the man of whispers and shadows and a well-placed blade. Cromwell is long-suffering and loyal, but nobody’s fool. He also makes an incredibly complex and sympathetic protagonist. (If the name seems familiar, you may be thinking of his relative, Oliver, who took out a sort of karmic retribution upon the monarchy years later. )
It was difficult for me to read Wolf Hall without thinking of Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VII: With Notes by his Fool, Will Sommers. They are written in differing styles with slightly different points of view, but both books give you what you want from the Tudors and Henry 8, specifically. I would say it is not necessary to read both books, unless you read gluttonously (as does The Worm) or you have a burning obsession with the Tudors. Each novel gives you the historic flavor of the time and cements the confusing lineage of Henry and his wives. If I had to pick one… well, I couldn’t. George’s book seemed stronger on psychology and motivations of Henry VIII, while Mantel’s book probes the backroom dealings of his court. Then again, George’s novel covers Henry’s entire reign and could take you a solid month or two to get through. Mantel’s digs deeper into a smaller span of history and won’t strain your eyes beyond repair with late night readings.
I am in NO WAY qualified to judge which book has greater historical accuracy, and it has been a few years since I read George’s Henry VIII, but it seems both takes on the Tudors can peacefully coexist. There are no radical deviations or contradictions between the two novels. None that a lowly worm would notice, anyhow.
So there you have it. Wolf Hall was very satisfying and you will feel just that much more enriched as a human being after reading it. (Either as a result of gaining a wider breadth of historical and cultural knowledge; or just from the smug self-satisfaction of now knowing your Norfolk from your Suffolk.) I enjoyed this read very much and still can’t decide who’s Henry I prefer – George’s or Mantel’s. What’s awesome is nobody is making us choose! Pick ‘em both up if you’re brave. If you can only devote time and funds enough for one Henry VIII tale – I’m going to recommend Mantel’s. It is shorter and, I think, a bit more accessible to most readers. (If you do go with George’s book, for God’s own sake – get the Kindle version. I read mine before digital was an option and probably sustained life long wrist injuries by the half way mark. That thing makes the Webster’s dictionary look like a comic book.)
Thanks to Kim in L.A. for the recommendation. Great choice. Oh, Worm Army beware… this is another one of those literary “gotcha’” moments. Wolf Hall is the first in a projected trilogy of books. The second, Bring Up the Bodies is already published. On the up side, this novel stands completely on it’s own. And, seriously, if you didn’t want to read the others but just had to know how the story turns out…? Yeah. You feel me. Wikipedia, mon frere. It’s kind of a public domain story, ya’ know? Worm Out!